The Evolution of Fairfax County’s Approach to Housing: An Interview with Fairfax County Chief Equity Officer Karla Bruce
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Voices from the field

The Evolution of Fairfax County’s Approach to Housing: An Interview with Fairfax County Chief Equity Officer Karla Bruce

When Karla Bruce was appointed as Fairfax County’s first Chief Equity Officer in 2018, one of the biggest issues facing the county was access to housing, particularly affordable housing. In the years since then, the county’s Board of Supervisors has adopted increasingly ambitious housing goals that are driving the county on a path to build more than 10,000 affordable housing units, and dramatically shifting the factors the county considers in development. 

To talk in depth about this shift, Ms. Bruce spoke with the Northern Virginia Health Foundation about what led the county to prioritize housing, the challenges they experienced in building more affordable housing units, and what else Fairfax County is doing to advance equity and opportunity.

There are so many issues facing Fairfax County residents. What led you to affordable housing?  

Housing is so fundamental to everything – equity, individual and family success, and economic competitiveness – and our community gets it.  First and foremost, it was the voice of the people, residents, and advocates. But data was also very instrumental in anchoring our decision to focus on affordable housing. When I came into this job, I started looking at data and seeing just how massive the problem was. The Northern Virginia’s Health Foundation’s report identifying the Islands of Disadvantage really shone a light on the region’s uneven landscape and the fact that, among other factors, housing would be key to ensuring people had access to opportunity. So, I approached the county’s Director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, Tom Fleetwood, and said, "Guess what? We have to go on this journey together because this is something that has to happen here." We knew that if we could get people in stable housing and put them in proximity to community assets and resources, then we could at least guarantee access to the opportunities necessary to thrive. So, under Tom's direction, and with the leadership of the county’s Redevelopment and Housing Authority and Board of Supervisors, there's been more financial investments and creative approaches to ensure more access to affordable housing.  

One University is one of the newer, larger affordable housing developments in the county. Tell us a bit more about it. 

The housing authority, the county and our development partners broke ground on One University back in January. It’s a huge development spread out over more than 10 acres of land. The property was originally called “One University Plaza” when it included the housing authority’s offices. One University will be done in 2024 and sits in an area that’s adjacent to George Mason University, near one of the county’s major activity centers. By the time people are able to start moving in, the development will have 240 affordable housing units for seniors and individuals and families with low incomes. There’s also another portion of the facility that will include 333 units just for students. It’s a big deal for the county.  

It not only significantly increases the amount of affordable housing in the county, but also ensures that housing will be placed somewhere with access to healthy food, green space, job opportunities, transportation, and everything else a person needs to have a stable, healthy life.

What else is the County doing to increase access to affordable housing? 

In response to the recommendations of the Affordable Housing Resources Panel, a group convened in 2018 and composed of representatives from the public, private, and non-profit sectors, the Board of Supervisors committed to build a total of 5,000 affordable housing units across the county.  Just recently the Board, under the leadership of Chairman Jeff McKay, agreed to up that number. So, by 2034, we’re expecting 10,000 units throughout Fairfax County. That will be huge. One University will factor in that number. Another project is the Residences at the Government Center II, which will be affordable housing built on a piece of repurposed county land, actually the parking lot of the county Government Center. There are also a number of other projects underway including in Tyson’s, which is one of the main drivers of the county’s economy. That project will also include a community center.

In addition, our housing authority, which is one of the elite original U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development “Moving to Work” housing authorities, is using the flexibility its status grants to design and implement new, creative, local solutions using our federal housing dollars. Most notably, the housing authority has been working to put the “choice” back in the Housing Choice Voucher program by recalibrating the fair market rents it pays across the county, and vigorously implementing the new fair housing law in Virginia which makes it unlawful to discriminate based on “source of funds.”   

Have you faced any challenges along the way? 

Certainly. One set of challenges was having land to build on and money to build with. Land is expensive in Fairfax County and it’s expensive to build affordable housing. The supply chain and labor cost issues associated with the pandemic have also been very problematic, as they have been across the entire development industry.     

Frankly we also know that most developers might not be inclined to build affordable housing. So, the county looked at bringing money to the table, providing land, and is working with an expanded list of affordable housing developers. One of the other challenges we face, though, are the NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard – attitudes that discourage development and mistakenly believe that the presence of affordable housing will lower home values.   

It's the community’s voice that will lead us to make choices and take actions that will really advance equity.

Fairfax County seems to be approaching housing differently now than it has in the past. Is that the case?  

Our approach has definitely evolved. The old model was often to put housing where there was cheaper land. But that often meant limited green space or few living wage job opportunities nearby. Again, this is why data helps so much. Now, we have a better understanding of vulnerability and access to opportunity by census tract and by block group, in every area of the county. That lets us intentionally view housing through an equity lens.  So, where opportunity isn’t present in an area where we might locate housing, we can work to bring opportunities to the people in that area. And then where it is present, but barriers exist, we can work to make sure that we are promoting access to that opportunity.  

Having housing initiatives in different places across the county must require working with new partners.  

It does. The corporate community has been very interested in our housing situation. For example, Amazon made a major investment and enabled our nonprofit partner at Tysons to go from building what was supposed to be a 3- or 4-level building to a 9-level building. The fact that our corporate community understands that we're in this together is really important. Our community is their employees and customers, so housing affordability is our shared interest. 

The faith community is also an important partner for us. Many congregations are looking at their own properties to see how they might re-purpose or maximize their spaces for the development of affordable housing and others are some of the county’s most vocal community advocates for affordable housing. 

In your first conversation with us in 2019, you talked about being on an “equity journey.” Where do you see Fairfax on that journey now? Has there been any progress since you started?  

Our work isn’t done but we’ve made some great strides over the last few years. One Fairfax is going strong, with our housing efforts being a key part of that. I’ve met with every county department – from the Police Department, to Planning and Development, to the Health Department, to the Park Authority, to the Department of Family Services – and challenged them to think differently about their work. We’re also looking across departments to find opportunities for partnership so that we're strategically aligning our efforts.  

We’re focused on the structural drivers of inequity, and the government's role – by policy, by practice, by program, by process – in affecting conditions and communities that impact people's lives. There’s now a broad understanding that having job opportunities, childcare, safe and affordable housing, healthy food, etc., all position our residents to effectively participate in the economy and share in the prosperity that's in Fairfax County. 

What’s your proudest accomplishment since becoming Chief Equity Officer? 

I'm proud that now every one of our county agencies have an equity plan. In May of this year, those plans got posted on the county's website, bringing a level of transparency and accountability that I didn't think was possible initially. Each one of those plans outlines what the departments see as equity issues and what they are going to do about them.  

It’s my job is to make sure that everybody's doing what they said, but the idea is that we share that with our community and position ourselves to welcome partnership and to be held accountable.  

I tell the community all the time that all the county ever committed to do was to consider equity. It's the community’s voice that will lead us to make choices and take actions that will really advance equity, because it’s the public will. The plans being out there really is a significant milestone. 

Beyond housing, what else are you focusing on in the County? 

There’s a significant racial wealth gap in the county and our new Department of Economic Initiatives is doing some amazing work around supporting our small business community since a significant number of small business owners and their employees are people of color and so many of them were negatively impacted by the pandemic. 

Separately and just recently, the Board of Supervisors endorsed a program called the Fairfax Founders Fund, which will support small startups that often don't get the types of early investments – including funds from family and friends – that enable them to get larger investments and acquire capital later on.  Targeted outreach will focus on recruiting women, people of color, veterans, and other underrepresented groups in the technology-based business community. 

Looking forward, I’m also excited about a partnership we recently launched with Venture Philanthropy Partners, focused primarily on early childhood and older youth. It’s exciting to see groups from outside the county make investments here because government can't do it all. This gives me even more confidence that this work can be sustained. 

What’s next for you and the County? How will you know if you are making progress?  

Through the Countywide Strategic Plan, we can ask ourselves, “How are we doing,” across ten outcome areas. By disaggregating data within those ten outcome areas, we will also be able to assess how we’re doing from an equity perspective, by place and by population.  We’re doing more than just weaving equity strategies into county government operations. More and more we are seeking to understand the equity impact of various decisions and policies and making adjustments to our strategies to mitigate burdens. Ultimately, we will know we are being successful when we look at the data and can no longer predict outcomes, health and well-being, by race or any other group identity.